Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Bluebird Boxes Appeal to Many Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

I’d like to get your thoughts on birdhouses. We have a yard with lots of tall trees, all kinds of birds and a very busy feeding area. I’d like advice on types of houses, plus location and mounting suggestions.

– Casey, CT


Sure, Casey,

Let’s talk about birdhouses. Why not? I usually save this topic until spring, but the way this winter has been going we may not have a spring – or even a summer – this year, so let’s do it now. And, if for some reason the weather does improve and we actually do have a spring I can run this same column again. All I’ll have to do is change your name, Casey, to Kasey, and change CT to CO and no one will ever know. Well, no one except Kasey from CO. I’ll have to figure out what to do about her when the time comes.

What is interesting about birdhouses is how few species of birds use them. Books, magazines and even cartoons all show birds using birdhouses. But out of the 650 species of birds found in the eastern half of North America, fewer than a dozen of them regularly use birdhouses. That’s less than two percent. Making birdhouses for so few birds is like opening a tutu shop that only caters to obese ballerinas. It’s a very limited market. However, the good news is the few bird species that do use birdhouses are common and are very happy when they find them.

If you are going to build or buy only one style of birdhouse, it should be made for bluebirds. I know this sounds like I’m into discrimination, but I’m really not. A bluebird box will not only give you a chance to attract bluebirds, the ultimate goal for most backyard bird watchers, but this size box will also attract a handful of other birds, including wrens, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches. Putting up a single box that has the potential to attract many different birds is a good thing, right? You would think so, but the control freaks of the world don’t see it that way. They get upset if their favorite bird (a bluebird) is displaced by their not-so-favorite bird (anything else). They are ready to call 911 if, say, a lowly titmouse muscles out a bluebird couple that wants the same box. (Bluebirds clearly need to spend more time at the gym.) One way to help eliminate this problem is to put out several houses. That way if your bird of choice is kicked out of house A, it can move into house B, or C, or D. (You can name your birdhouses anything you’d like. I choose single letters because they are easier to spell.)

When it comes to birdhouse placement, it’s a good idea to keep your houses away from your feeders. During the breeding season most birds are territorial and are less likely to choose a box close to where other birds are having a feeding frenzy. Boxes set out in the open or on the edge of a clearing seem to do better than the ones hidden amongst trees. I mount my houses on posts, as opposed to trees. Boxes mounted on trees are more likely to be discovered by hungry raccoons. I’m also not a big fan of hanging houses on a branch by a string or a chain. I don’t know if birds get motion sickness, but they don’t need a house that’s constantly spinning in the wind. The adults have enough trouble finding food for their babies without having to find them Dramamine, too.

Since we put up birdhouses for our own entertainment, as well as the birds’ benefit, it makes sense for us to place our boxes where we can see them. If the boxes are way down on the lower forty, we are going to miss all the action. In terms of height: Most birds seem to be flexible about this rule, so I always tell folks to put their boxes head-high (their head, not the birds’). A box that is easy to access is more likely to be kept clean. Boxes that require a ladder or Jet Pack to reach are usually not very well maintained.

Here’s a bird that folks rarely think about putting up a box for, but it is one of my favorites. The Great-crested Flycatcher is extremely conspicuous and a very interesting bird to watch. Unfortunately, it is a tubby bird and won’t fit into the aforementioned one-size-fits-all bluebird box. You’ll have to put up a box specifically for them. And speaking of being specific, don’t be afraid to put up an owl box. I used to feel guilty selling owl boxes. I thought people would have a better chance of winning Powerball than actually getting an owl pair to nest. It turns out the owls love the boxes, making it one of the few times I’ve been wrong or felt guilty about something.

While proper box construction, dimensions and entrance hole size are important (and are a whole different column), the real key is habitat. You can have the best boxes in the world but if your yard is not appealing to certain birds (for example, bluebirds don’t like a lot of trees), you simply aren’t going to get them. So don’t take it personally, Casey. Speaking of taking it personally, I hope I didn’t offend anyone with the line about “obese ballerinas, “ but I’m not happy with the ballet world right now. I just saw the movie, Black Swan. It’s about ballet. It has nothing to do with birds. What a rip-off.